Warner Bros. // 2007 // 121 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Christopher Kulik (Retired) // March 6th, 2008
"They shouldn't send heroes to places like Iraq. Everything there is all fucked up. Before I went -- I'd never say this -- but, if you ask me, they should nuke it and watch it all turn back to dust!" -- Army Spc. Gordon Bonner
When I went to see In the Valley of Elah in the theaters last fall, I didn't know what I was getting into. All I knew was it was written and directed by Paul Haggis, who also wrote the Best Picture-winners Million Dollar Baby and Crash. He's an exceptionally good filmmaker, and it's shocking that he has only come out in the open in the past four years. With three Oscar-winning actors onboard for In the Valley of Elah, I was hoping this was something special -- and it was. While the crux of the story is a murder mystery involving a soldier who recently returned from the Iraq war -- based on Mark Boal's Playboy factual article "Death and Dishonor," -- it is more about the psychological effect of the war on the soldiers themselves. I've never been in a war, though I did serve in the U.S. Navy for 8 years. Back in the late 1990s, a sailor who was stationed on a neighboring ship in Japan had walked into work one morning and said that he killed someone in his division. At first, his superiors thought he was joking, but when they left to locate the missing sailor they couldn't find him. When they confronted the confessing sailor again, he said he would prove it; so, he left and came back with a seabag with his strangled shipmate crammed inside. All he said was, "I told you so!" I was reminded of that episode after watching In the Valley of Elah, a timely, engrossing, and quietly powerful film, which had moments which, literally, made my blood turn cold. Sadly, the film flopped in theaters, so this would be the perfect time to catch it on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Independent Pictures.
Retired Army MP Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive) is now living a quiet life in Munro, Tennesee with his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon, Enchanted). Their older son David had died 10 years earlier in a helicopter crash, while their younger son Mike is now in the Army fighting over in Iraq. Hank recieves a call one day from Fort Rudd, who alert him that Mike has been home for the past four days and is now currently AWOL. Hank is perplexed. Reluctantly, he decides to drive to New Mexico to locate his son and find out what the hell is going on. He checks into a cheap hotel. When he goes to Fort Rudd, he does meet some of the other members in his son's squad, but doesn't find out much. On a whim, he takes Mike's camera phone from his quarters and pays someone to have some corrupted media files rescued. Hank's search for his son takes him to the local tittie bars, and he discovers the possibilty that his son was involved in drugs. Thinking that Mike found himself in a whirlpool of trouble, Hank consults civilian police detective Emily Saunders (Charlize Theron, Monster).
Eventually, Mike is found, but he is literally in pieces and spread out over a remote field; he was stabbed 42 times with a knife, chopped up, and essentially mutilated. While Saunders initially begins the investigation, the military takes over when they determine that the body parts were found in their jurisdiction. However, Hank has reason to believe his son was killed in the local police precinct's jurisdiction, and asks Saunders to assist him in his own investigation. Naturally, the truth proves difficult to find as Hank probes deeper into the mystery surrounding Mike's death. Every day, he recieves a new video shot in Iraq by Mike, and they only make him contemplate even more what his son was actually thinking -- and doing -- during his final hours.
Paul Haggis' new film moves at a deliberate pace in concert with his previous efforts, and thus it's going to require some patience on the viewer's part. Plus, while the identity of the killer or killers is a little too easy to guess, it was intentional on the part of the filmmakers. The mystery itself isn't so much who killed Mike but why. The film even ends with not all the questions answered. Some have unfairly attacked In the Valley of Elah as being unpatriotic, against the Iraq war, and even anti-American. Indeed, Haggis could be, in a subtle manner, apologizing for the Iraq war. However, this is the type of story that could be believable during any war, whether it be Iraq, Vietnam, WW2 or the Great War. What's important to note is that this film is apolitical in every way; sure conservatives may get pissed off and think otherwise, though they are missing the point. The soldiers in this film are not depicted as monsters but as human beings who get psychologically damaged during conflict and battle. Personally, I believe Haggis is reminding us of how wars affect not only spirit but mind, and it doesn't really matter if the war is justified or not. For those of you who are wondering what the title is referring to, I will not reveal it, though I will say it is setting of a classic battle in the Bible.
Despite its powerhouse themes and compelling investigative path, the real reason to see this film is because of the pleasure of watching its cast at work. While Tommy Lee Jones deserved his Best Actor nomination, we all knew it was a no-brainer that he would lose to Daniel Day-Lewis, whose towering turn as an insane oil man in There Will Be Blood was simply unforgettable. Jones' character -- and performance -- is 180 degrees different in comparison; he is quiet and reserved, but you get a sense of what his character is like straight away. You buy him as an ex-Army MP because of how he folds hospital corners and shines his boots, yes, but it's the nuances which Jones create that make him vulnerable and emotionally scarred throughout. Recognizing pain is one thing, but you feel it because he feels it. His character never questions the Iraq conflict or makes political speeches; he is simply a father searching for the truth. As for Charlize Theron, she plays a character who simply wants to do her job, and nothing more. Haggis sets up her character as a victim of sexism within her precinct, getting mocked for recieving a lot of "shit cases." There is a pivotal scene in which she doesn't seem to show sympathy to a woman whose husband murdered their pet Doberman. Some people thought this minor detail made no sense and was unnecessary. In fact, it tells us what kind of person she is: she cares but she never gets emotionally involved. She remains that way even she helps out Hank. Indeed, Haggis wrote both of these characters extremely well and the superb performances solidify that even more.
Susan Sarandon may be relegated to only a few scenes, but she uses them for all they're worth. As for the supporting cast, there are no doubt viewers who will recognize Josh Brolin (The Goonies) as a coffee-drinking police chief, James Franco (Harry Osbourne in Spider-Man films) as a soldier on barracks watch, and Jason Patric (The Alamo) as a CID investigator. Clint Eastwood's ex-wife Frances Fisher (Unforgiven) makes an eye-popping cameo as a naked bartender; in fact, Haggis originally offered the lead role to Eastwood, though he turned it down because he didn't want to act anymore (however, he's thanked in the end credits). However, some of the best acting comes from the soldiers themselves, including Jake McLaughlin -- a real-life Army specialist who fought in Iraq -- as Spc. Gordon Bonner, and Wes Chatham in the crucial role of Corporal Penning. Chatham, as it turns out, was in the Navy for 4 years and was stationed on the USS Essex and the USS Belleau Wood out of Sasebo, Japan...which is where I was for four years! (Usually, those two ships were docked beside the USS Fort McHenry, which was the command I worked for.)
Warner Home Entertainment presents In the Valley of Elah in a satisfactory but unspectacular Blu-Ray edition. The 1080p High Definition transfer with VC-1 encode is fine for the most part, with reasonably solid blacks, and fine flesh tones. Many of the colors are a bit muted though they do support the film's overall mood nonetheless. The film is presented in non-anamorphic, 2:40:1 widescreen and boasts a TrueHD English 5.1 Stereo track, along with three other tracks in Dolby Digital. This is extraordinary quiet film, with hardly any music, though the score (by Mark Isham) is nice and clear, with the dialogue easily heard as well. To be honest, though, this presentation is probably not much better than the regular and HD versions, so you are not really missing much. Why there is no surround track is beyond me, also. Subtitles are provided in English, French, and Spanish.
The special features are limited, with the 45-minute documentary split into two parts: "After Iraq" and "Coming Home." Both provide some interesting background on the making of the film and, apparantly, the military did in fact support the production. Jones and Sarandon provide a couple of sit-down interviews, though most of the attention is placed on the actors playing the soldiers laced with behind-the-scenes footage. The documentary is worth watching but it left me wanting more; Theron is barely in it, and it would have been even better if Haggis provided a complimentary audio commentary. The other bonus is an additional scene involving a girl Mike was dating. There is some comic relief utilized by making her name Jennifer Lopez, with Hank apparantly unaware that she shares her name with a certain celebrity. The film reveals that Lopez lost her right arm and leg in combat, and Hank goes to interview her. I can see why the scene was scrapped because it doesn't really add anything to the film in terms of the lead's mission; plus, seeing how the effects were not complete, the scene seems more suited to I Know Who Killed Me.
Among all the criticisms that the film recieved, there was one that particularly irked a lot of critics, and that would be the denoumeut. I won't reveal what happens, though it's all too obviously set up near the beginning. One of the best things about In the Valley of Elah is the fact there is no preaching or moralizing. I can understand what Haggis is saying with the finale, and I agree with him. However, why the setup with the man from El Savador who works at the local school? Wouldn't it be more stirring if he asked a soldier to do the action at Fort Rudd? Ahh, perhaps the military would have objected to it, though it would have still rang more true and, thus, be much more effective. The most believable route would be if he did it at his own home, though. It's a great idea that I think is used the wrong way, that's all.
A powerful and patriotic film without preachiness, In the Valley of Elah is definately recommened by the court. One of the best and most underreated films of 2007!
Warner Bros., Haggis, and the film are free to go. The court sends its prayers out to the men and women serving in Iraq; you certainly have not been forgotten!
Review content copyright © 2008 Christopher Kulik; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "In the Valley of Elah: After Iraq"
* "In the Valley of Elah: Coming Home"
* Additional Scene
* DVD Verdict Review - [HD DVD]